This post was written by Claire van den Helder
How do international students in Amsterdam use Instagram to navigate their new social surroundings, and how do the perils and joys of curating messages shape their self-development? The project “On Display” seeks to understand how users craft and negotiate their Instagram presence by doing in-depth interviews with active and enthusiastic users. This will result in a public dataset, allowing researchers to interpret the same data from multiple disciplinary perspectives. This series serves as a teaser, highlighting a snapshot of our conversations and insights on a regular basis.
For our very first blog post, I reflect on my conversation with Gianni, a 25-year-old Master student of sociology. He moved to Amsterdam from Italy in 2020 and now resides in Nieuw-West. We contacted Gianni through Instagram, and he enthusiastically replied that he wanted to participate. During the interview, he came across as sociable, confident, and happy to share his reflections on his Instagram use.
The interview took place on Zoom, and we started by scrolling down to his first posts. When I asked him to scroll down, Gianni started laughing and jokingly questioned whether he should show me. ‘The first post?! That’s interesting, that’s probably embarrassing. I’m not sure I want to do so.’ Still, he scrolled down and remarks that he has not deleted any posts, hinting that the images are quite old and of low quality. His first posts are mainly selfies where he is posing to show his outfits or tattoos. There are pictures of him and his friends, of a marijuana plant, and a picture where he is shirtless posing with a box of peaches. Gianni said the pictures make him cringe and when I asked him to elaborate he explains that he did not feel like that when he posted the pictures. He posted his first pictures because he did not want to have an empty profile. Gianni’s friends already had Instagram accounts before him, and he did not want to be the only one without any posts. He started scrolling up again, but I invited him to think more about what he thought about posting his first pictures. He explained it through a metaphor by comparing Instagram to a shop window. The selfies show what he looks like, and the posts showing his interests (such as the theatre) give an impression of what he likes to do. Pictures of his face, his body, and him visiting the theatre function as a window to give people ‘an idea of what’s inside the shop’.
FROM SHOP WINDOWS TO SWEATPANTS AT HOME
Later on during the interview, Gianni brought up the subject of vulnerability, referring again to his shop window metaphor. I had asked him why he prefers using WhatsApp over Instagram for personal messaging, because I was curious if the pictures or video’s played a role in this. ‘When you talk with somebody on Instagram, it’s like talking to somebody in [their] shop […] You go to the shop to talk with him or her while he or she is working. The interaction is different.’ To Gianni, people on Instagram engage in a certain performativity on Instagram, akin to being at work, which relates to the photos people post. WhatsApp is more like being at home where ‘you are not so interested [in performing], you wear sweatpants with bad hair.’
‘You don’t get bad hair and sweatpants on Instagram usually, you get the fancy trips in Dubai on Instagram. Even though I have friends that share their vulnerabilities on Instagram, they do so always, always in a fashionable way.’
When I asked him to elaborate, Gianni explained that he feels that his social circles accept and encourage sharing vulnerable experiences. So much so, that he argues that not showing your vulnerable side is even stigmatised. ‘You’re being like the classical men’. This illustrates that certain social circles define themselves in opposition to ‘classical men’, in other words, an idea of masculinity that includes emotional repression. If vulnerability becomes a desirable character trait in these social circles, that also translates to Instagram. Showing your vulnerable side in posts and stories makes you look more authentic, you are presenting a completer version of yourself, like a ‘360 degree person’. Gianni remarked that this can be deceptive, as we never fully represent our experiences or ourselves.
“No matter what […] the angry part of us, we’re not sharing it. The other parts are only [for] us, only we know. Maybe one friend knows. We’re not sharing it [the other vulnerabilities], so it’s always not fully 100% genuine. Because even though you’re displaying your vulnerabilities, you’re not displaying the ones you’re not okay with.”
GROWING OLDER AND CARING LESS
However, Gianni does not wish to share his own vulnerable sides on Instagram. He does share his difficulties and emotions with his friends, but he does not understand why some people want others to see these sides through Instagram: “Instagram does not suggest me this type of usage”. He did share his vulnerable side on Facebook before. He explained that this is also because he was in a different phase of his life. Gianni used to be a student representative during high school, and he had many friends. He used to share much more about himself, wanting to get confirmation and recognition.
Going on social media was rewarding because of all the interactions he had. This was before he started using Instagram. By the time he arrived at the platform he was studying at university and started to care less about how people saw him online. He explained that in high school, he felt ‘almighty’ and ‘ready to destroy the world’ which changed after going to university and losing some of his friends. Instagram became a place where he would just share a nice picture, instead of seeking confirmation in the way he did before. Presenting a completer or more authentic version of himself might have become less important for him now. Moreover, the platform does not incite him to share his vulnerabilities.
At the end of the interview, I asked Gianni how he experienced talking about his Instagram use. “I used to be self-aware already on how I use social media, but now I think I’m more aware of what happens in my brain while I’m using social media.” The shop window metaphor gives us some insight into what actually happens in Gianni’s brain when he uses Instagram. While he might not have been aware of this, he certainly considered how his friends would receive his Instagram profile. An empty shop window with nothing to display, makes him stand out from his friends. As he grows older, his relationship with social media develops as well. Before, he felt more need to share his vulnerabilities but on Instagram, he does not seek the same interaction. While he is not preoccupied with his online presence in the same way there are still rules and expectations to deal with.